The Rustic Puff display is something of a standout at the midtown farmers market – its wooden crates festooned with banners and placards that point to the bags of fluffy marshmallows on the table, each tied with a simple hemp ribbon. Their labels reveal a whimsical and varied list of flavors; mint chip, chocolate port, strawberry basil, maple bacon and the expertly named “mocha choca latta ya ya.”
The gourmet treats, squared and delicately garnished with nuts, candies or sea salt, are the work of Heather and Jennifer Frades, owners of The Rustic Puff marshmallow company. The Lodi couple has been pedaling their farm-to-fork take on the childhood treat around Northern California for the past three years, but locked in their spot at the popular market on 20th Street (between J and K streets) just this spring. The reception has been everything they’d hoped for, Heather said.
“We get a lot of people who come up and want to squish the bag,” she said. “People walk up and they’re like, ‘Oh my god, these are marshmallows?’ And they can’t help but smile. We took the marshmallow and that idea of it making you happy and making you smile and making you reminisce about being a child, and we elevated that into something that adults and kids … can like.”
It all started in 2011, when Jennifer, a home pastry chef and wedding planner with a creative bent, spotted a marshmallow-making cookbook on the shelves of a Santa Cruz bookstore. Excited to tackle a new experiment, she took the book home to her wife.
Heather was skeptical. Her notion of marshmallows went no further than the grocery store version – rubbery white cylinders mushed together in sticky bags for use in hot cocoa or as a campfire treat.
“I’d never heard of anybody making a marshmallow,” Heather said recently. “At least not what I was familiar with. I didn’t trust it.”
But Jennifer’s first batch of marshmallows came out airy and melt-in-your-mouth soft – and convinced her partner that she was on to something.
With Heather, a former hospitality and marketing professional, overseeing the business end, the couple began distributing marshmallows as party favors for Jennifer’s weddings and events. They were so popular that people began requesting customized flavors and gift packages.
In 2013 they launched a Kickstarter campaign and moved into a shared commercial kitchen in Lodi, where they now work to fill online orders, which range from 30 in a slow month to 300 around Valentine’s Day or during the winter holiday season.
They also produce marshmallows for large regional events such as Lathrop’s Beer and Bacon Festival or the Rib Cook-Off in Reno, and for private “puff parties” that might include a fondue set-up or a s’mores bar.
Keeping up with demand can be challenging. Rustic Puff marshmallows require a full 24 hours to make and should be eaten shortly after creation for the freshest taste, Heather said.
Jennifer starts with a mixture of gelatin, sugar, salt and whatever liquid that particular batch calls for. In some cases, it’s just water. In others, it’s a Track 7 pale ale or a chardonnay from Viaggio in Lodi. She sources cherry, blueberry and pomegranate extracts from Hidden Star Orchards in Clements, while Happy Girl Kitchen in Pacific Grove provides spices and sea salt.
After the gelatin concoction cures on the stove for 10 minutes, it goes into a large mixer, churning until it becomes aerated and fluffy. At that stage, Jennifer adds any other mix-ins, such as house-made chocolate sauce or fruit from the midtown farmers market before pouring the gloppy batter into the pan, where it rests for hours before taking on its final pillowy form.
Using local ingredients is a sticking point for the small business, Heather said.
“We have a niche product where we can go to these different wineries, local breweries, whatever the case may be, and say, ‘Let’s make marshmallows with the beer you’re creating or with your wine,’ and they like that a lot,” she said. “We really fit into what Sac was all about in terms of farm to fork.”
One of the duo’s most popular flavors comes from a collaboration with Jeremy Wine Co. in downtown Lodi. Heather and Jennifer approached owner Jeremy Trettevik a few years ago, curious about how his chocolate port would work in their batter.
“We just had a product that totally linked with them,” Trettevik said. “So they tried making marshmallows with it and it came out fantastic. It’s more marshmallow, but there definitely are notes of wine. You absolutely get the fruit notes, the subtleties.”
Trettevik brings the product out when he attends downtown or wants to offer a perk to wine club members, he said.
Rustic Puff marshmallows come in three sizes: 1/2-inch niblets ($4 for a bag), 1-inch pop ’ems ($6 for a bag), or 2-inch classics ($4 a piece). Prices are higher online.
Many of Rustic Puff’s flavors are seasonal. While July brings calls for s’mores supplies, it’s actually one of the company’s slower months despite summer creations such as buttered popcorn marshmallows.
Business picks up in the fall and winter, when customers pine for pumpkin spice latte mallows or circular mug toppers that slowly melt into their coffees and cocoas, Heather said. Rustic Puff also makes tea toppers such as honey lavender and lemon. A pack of five mug toppers sells for $5 in person or $6.50 online.
Looking forward, Heather and Jennifer are hoping to expand the business, starting with bringing in their 23-year-old daughter as a salesperson and chef apprentice. They’ve recently cut down on their farmers market obligations in order to do more pop-up and boutique events, but said they plan to stay in midtown permanently so that the “marshmallow fanatics” can find them.
Eventually, the couple would like to own a mobile truck or a brick-and-mortar location. Ideally, it would be a collaboration with a local coffee, wine or beer vendor. And it would involve fire pits.
“The fire pit thing is just really cool,” Heather said. “It promotes community and gathering, which is important. When we have the ability to bring that back, I think it makes a huge difference on people and where they like to put their money or spend their time.”
For now, find Rustic Puff marshmallows at the midtown market, at Vampire Penguin in Natomas, or online at TheRusticPuff.com.